John Taylor Skilling, Ex-Enron Chief's Son, Dies of Possible Overdose

Friends of John Taylor Skilling say he wasn't depressed or had issues with Dad.

February 04, 2011, 2:29 PM

Feb. 4, 2011— -- John Taylor Skilling, a 20-year-old communications major at Chapman College in Orange, Calif., and the son of imprisoned ex-Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling, was found dead from what police say was a drug overdose.

Paramedics broke into his apartment after friends were concerned and found Skilling in the bedroom with a bottle of prescription drugs by his bed.

"They were supposed to meet him for dinner and he didn't show up and they knew he was despondent over a recent break-up with a girlfriend," Santa Ana Police Corporal Anthony Bertagna told Reuters. "They looked in the window and they could see him lying on the bed."

"We don't know yet if it's a possible accidental overdose or suicide," he said.

John Taylor Skilling, or JT as he was called, was 15 when his father was sentenced to a 24 years in a federal prison in Englewood, Colo.

His lawyers reported that the older Skilling was " heartbroken and distraught and devastated" by the tragedy.

Friends told ABC News that the younger Skilling had not seemed depressed and were adamant that people not equate the death with Skilling's emotional state over his father.

"They had a very strong relationship," said one close Texas friend, who asked to remain anonymous. "He loved his Dad so much, and through everything that has happened over the years, he stuck by his Dad's side. That surprised a lot of people."

"He was not at all a depressive person," said the friend. "Honestly, I don't know what the drugs were prescribed for. That's something we will find out later. I just think it was an accident. This is the last kid who would take his own life."

An autopsy showed no foul play and there was no suicide note, according to police. It will be four to six weeks until toxicology tests are completed.

Skilling's death echoed that of Mark Madoff,, the son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff. The 46-year-old killed himself last December possibly over the disgrace of his father's conviction on charges of running an investment Ponzi scheme.

In his case, say friends, the father of four had been "struggling" emotionally.

Madoff's suicide coincided with the second anniversary of his father's crimes against investors and a flurry of multi-billion-dollar civil suits.

Psychologists say that the sins of a father can have a devastating effect on the development of a younger child and -- though it may not be true in this case -- can eventually lead to depression or suicide.

"I found myself wondering more about how this young man dealt with his own anger toward his much loved father, and what the breakup with and loss of his girlfriend meant to him in terms of loss of support and understanding, given what he must have been carrying," said Michael Diamond, a clinical professor of psychiatry, UCLA.

Skilling's father was convicted of conspiracy, insider trading and securities fraud in 2006. An appeals court in New Orleans is now considering his latest appeal.

Accounting tricks led to the 2001 collapse of Enron, which was one of the leading electricity, natural gas, communications, and pulp and paper companies. An estimated 22,000 jobs were lost, as well as $60 billion in stock and $2 billion in employee pension plans.

"JT was a wonderful young man," Skilling's attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, said in a brief written statement. "Jeff and his family are heartbroken."

Petrocelli has contacted the Federal Bureau of Prisons to request that his client might attend the funeral.

Before Madoff, Enron Was Symbol of Corporate Evil

Before the Madoff scandal, Enron became the ultimate symbol of corporate greed in the United States.

Skilling's son was youngest of three children with his first wife, Susan Lowe, who grew up with his siblings -- Kristen, 26, and Jeffrey, 25 -- in the Houston area.

According to his Facebook page, Skilling had nearly 1,000 friends and was interested in acting, singing, painting and power tumbling. His greatest love was music, say those who knew him.

Some speculated that Skilling's was despondent over the loss of a girlfriend, but his closest friends said they did not believe he took his own life.

"He was an amazing guy," said classmate Eric Smith, 21, who was active with Skilling at Chapman Radio. "He was a very talented musician...His show actually won best new show last semester."

Chapman co-hosted the campus show, "Philosophy of Music."

One of Skilling's oldest friends, who did not want to be identified, told ABC News that suicide made no sense.

"I have known JT since we were 9," said the Dallas, Texas, friend, who spent summers with Skilling at camp. "He was literally the sweetest, kindest person there could ever be. This is so shocking to all of us."

The friend learned about the death as Skillings' classmates began to post "RIP" message on Facebook earlier this week.

"The last time I talked to him, he seemed like he was living life and loved music so much. He was kind of a free spirit," said the friend. "He broke up with his girlfriend. Maybe he was looking for relief and mixed something or he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and no one was there to help."

"I know everyone is talking about his dad, but I hope they focus on JT's life, because the shadow his dad cast over him was not fair for a kid like him," he said.

At the time of his conviction, Jeffrey Skilling said, "'It's been very hard on me, but probably, more important, incredibly hard on my family."

Suicide, Depression Can Accompany Family Shame

Psychologists say that dealing with a parent who has committed a crime or brought shame on the family can be devastating for a son. And the younger their age, the more vulnerable they are.

"We don't want to make the mistake and go out on a limb -- we really don't even know if this was a suicide," said Ronald Levant, a professor of psychology at University of Akron in Ohio who is an expert on father-son relationships.

"But it's possible in this case, and with the Madoff son, that men tend to look at their fathers and model themselves after them," he said. "They form their ego ideal on the perception of their father and it can be particularly crushing for a man to have to have his ego idea essentially tainted or discredited."

John Taylor Skilling was 10 years old when the Enron scandal broke and only a sophomore in high school when his father was sent to prison.

"In the case of a young man whose father was essentially guilty of a heinous crime and he admired and looked up to the father, it can be a severe psychological blow and produce depression and thoughts of suicide," said Levant.

But the camp friend disagreed.

"He was my close friend and he died far away from home," he said. "I just want to make sure it doesn't sound like his dad drove him to it. That's not true at all. He loved his dad."

Chapman College officials and Jeffrey Skilling's lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, did not return calls seeking comment.

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